Bruin’s Orphans, Chapter 11
Six days passed with no sun. The hens quit laying eggs. The goats quit making milk. The girls went into the void of blackness every morning to feed the animals, but there wasn’t anything else to do. No eggs to gather. No milk pail to fill. It was even too dark to clean the animals’ straw. It was nearly as dark in the house, so there was no dusting or scrubbing. The blackness was darker than nighttime. It seemed to swallow any light from lanterns or kerosene lamps.
Instead, the girls did only the basics. In the morning, they came back to the kitchen and pumped water for coffee. They got rolls from the pantry and spread them with jam for breakfast. For most of each day, they sat by feeble candlelight near the fireplace, in the corner out of sight of the farmer and his wife.
After a cold lunch of sausages and bread on the sixth day, Lily asked Gretel, “How long do you think this will last?”
“Until the animals are happy again,” Gretel said.
Herr Gustav shuffled into the kitchen. “I hate this infernal blackness. It’s like the bear swallowed the sun.”
Frau Hilda came behind him and sat at the kitchen table. “That’s nonsense, but that’s what the simple-minded villagers will think.”
“And why shouldn’t they?” Herr Gustav demanded.
“Because it’s silly. How can a bear control the moon or the sun or the stars?”
“It’s magic,” Herr Gustav said.
“It’s stupid. There’s some reasonable explanation for the dark that’s settled over us, but no one will believe it. They’ll all blame the bear.”
“I blame the bear,” said Gustav.
“Then you’re as silly as the rest of them,” said Hilda.
Gretel looked at Lily. What other explanation was there? The villagers had angered the Sacred Bear, and all the animals had gathered to complain to the heavens. Now, there was no sun.
“The hens didn’t eat when I sprinkled seeds on the ground this m orning,” Gretel said.
Frau Hilda frowned. “Did you speak without permission, girl?”
“I thought it was important that you should know.”
Herr Gustav frowned at his wife. “It is important. Without the hens, we’ll have no eggs. And no new chicks next spring. You’ve been taking care of them the last three years. Any ideas, Gretel?”
It was the first time that Gustav had ever asked for her advice. Gretel answered immediately. “I’d hang lanterns in their coop. Without light, they just huddle in their nests and are frightened. Light would make a big difference.”
“Good, see to it. Take as many lanterns as you need. Anything else?”
“The goats could use some light, too. If you want them to eat and make milk again.”
“Done,” Gustav said. “Any suggestions on how to make the sun shine again?”
Gretel told him what she thought. “You have to make the bear happy. You killed her cub. You’re ruining her forest. The other animals listen to her.”
“And how would he please a bear?” Frau Hilda asked.
“Plant new trees where you’ve cut them.”
“Can’t. The ground’s frozen solid,” Gustav told her.
“Make a promise to the bear.”
Frau Hilda laughed. “Make a deal with a bear? And she’ll understand and quit killing our animals until next spring? No wonder your parents died poor and couldn’t take care of you.”
Gretel felt as if all of the blood drained from her face and body. She felt as if her heart constricted to a tiny knot. “What do you know?” she yelled. “All you know is how to be lazy and mean. You don’t have one nice bone in your body.”
Frau Hilda jumped to her feet, her hands balled into fists.
Gretel knew that she was going to get the beating of her life, and that she probably deserved it, but she didn’t care. Her parents were good people who worked hard their entire lives. They didn’t deserve to die poor.
Herr Gustav stepped between his wife and Gretel. “The girl might be right about the bear. And any child worth her name would defend her parents.”
“She called me lazy and mean.”
“You insulted her parents.”
Frau Hilda tried to push her husband out of the way. “She’s going to be sorry for her impudence.”
“We have enough problems right now,” Gustav said. “Let it go.”
“Get out of my sight,” Hilda hissed at the girls. “Go to the barn and find something to do.”
When Gretel turned to leave, Hilda grabbed a glass candy jar off the kitchen table and hurled it at her head. It hit Gretel behind the right ear. Gretel fell, blood gushing onto the hand she pressed against the cut.
“Why did you do that?” Gustav shouted.
“She had it coming. You don’t deal with the girls every day. You have no idea how disrespectful they can be.”
Gustav shrugged. “All right, you’ve punished her. Now we have more important things to deal with.”
Hilda raised her voice. “Don’t you dare bleed on my wood floor. Get up and get out of here. And never talk back to me again.”
Lily bent to help her sister to her feet. “Come on, Gretel. Lean on me.”
Gretel wrapped an arm around her little sister’s shoulder and staggered into her coat and scarf.
“Don’t suffer too long,” Frau Hilda called after them as they went outdoors. “You have lanterns to light and chores to do. See to the chickens and goats.”
“I hate her,” Lily said under her breath.
“So do I.” Gretel’s head throbbed.